University of Malaya
University of Malaya
Md Nasrudin Md Akhir
University of Malaya
Since the 1950s, Japanese non-state actors in the international anti-nuclear weapons movement have disseminated the dangers of nuclear weapons, tied to Japanese experiences of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Coming from the only country that has experienced nuclear attacks, they provide much needed evidence of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. These actors include survivors of the atomic bombings, commonly known as hibakusha, who have initiated and persistently maintained the humanitarian focus on nuclear discourse for decades. This paper examines their contributions to eyewitness testimonies on the impacts of nuclear weapons and their efforts leading to major milestones in international efforts for nuclear abolition. It also focuses on the roles played by the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization (Nihon Hidankyo) and the Japan Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (JALANA), which made tremendous contributions facilitating the success of the World Court Project in the 1990s and the Humanitarian Initiative in the 2010s that led to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Non-state Japanese contributions were, unfortunately, under-recognised, and the successes of international nuclear abolition were often attributed to other international actors. Hence, this paper recognises the contributions of non-state Japanese actors in sustaining the international anti-nuclear weapons movement and achieving the nuclear ban treaty.
Since the United States’ (US) atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, there have been consistent calls for a nuclear-weapon-free world, including the first resolution urging for nuclear disarmament made by the United Nations (UN) in January of 1946. In Japan, non-state actors have been active in the anti-nuclear weapons movement since the 1950s, even at the international level, though their contributions remain relatively little-known. The term “non-state actors” is used in reference to individuals and organisations who are distinct from state authorities, yet are involved with international networks wielding power substantial enough to influence the political landscape. This paper examines the contributions of these key actors, especially the survivors of atomic bombings (commonly known as hibakusha), in framing the international nuclear abolition efforts from a humanitarian perspective. We must also recognise the contributions of nuclear test victims – e.g., the Marshall Islanders affected by US weapon tests from 1946–58. While the Marshall Islands’ state authority is a member of the UN Human Rights Council and actively campaigns against nuclear fallout, it is the hibakusha and not their government at the forefront of Japanese anti-nuclear efforts.
Such movements have considerable currency in the academic literature on global peace and disarmament. But the key role of Japanese non-state actors has not been taken as seriously in scholarly research as they should be due to their massive and decades-long efforts. Regardless, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists once featured Frances Crowe for her activism in peace movements against nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Magno emphasises the role of a Catholic group in the US called the Plowshares, which uses biblical language as a strategy to emphasise the need to protect humanity from the threat of nuclear weapons. Feminist groups, too, have played a part in the anti-nuclear weapons movement. Branciforte posits how La Ragnatela Women's Peace Camp was established in 1983 to protest NATO’s plan to deploy cruise missiles in Sicily, offering women a voice to discuss conflict and peace while propagating feminist discourses on nuclear disarmament through its global links with women’s peace groups. Ruff explains how the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was established in 2007, and to what extent it transformed the disarmament landscape into a transnational one when negotiating the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). With unprecedented support from governments and international civil societies, ICAN promoted a humanitarian context for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
While western activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been mentioned, the literature on their Japanese counterparts is scarce. Tomonaga Masao, a medical doctor and hibakusha from Nagasaki, has been vocal and active in scholarly literature. As part of the Eminent Persons Group established by then foreign minister Kishida Fumio, Tomonaga published an article on the group’s recommendations to the Japanese government to promote bridge-building measures between states that support TPNW and those that oppose it. After the TPNW’s entry into force in January 2021, a greater divide between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states emerged. Consequently, Tomonaga has stated that civil society must not rely on hibakusha activism alone. Undeniably, Japan’s anti-nuclear activism, which is implicitly connected to the role of hibakusha, is robust due to the city-to-city diplomacy supported by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as global ambassadors for nuclear abolition. However, the Mayors for Peace campaign launched in 1983 by the two mayors, which has linkages with over 8000 cities, has scarcely been acknowledged by the international community. Miyazaki insists that the TPNW’s entry into force would not have been possible without the collaboration of the mayors and hibakusha with the larger transnational civil society network.
While making the point that current academic literature underestimates the role of Japanese non-state actors’ contributions to the anti-nuclear weapons movement, this paper also focuses on the roles played by the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization (Hidankyo) and the Japan Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (JALANA) in international efforts for the World Court Project (WCP) in the 1990s, as well as the Humanitarian Initiative in the 2010s, as these are preludes to the TPNW. Interviews with our key informants, which include hibakusha, representatives from Japanese organisations, and experts on anti-nuclear weapons issues, provide first-hand information and insights, highlighting the eyewitness testimonies of survivors as particularly crucial to the discourse.
Compared to its peers worldwide, the Japanese anti-nuclear movement has a unique characteristic – it regards helping hibakusha as a main objective. Collectively, Japanese organisations and hibakusha play a central role in the movement’s humanitarian framing. While their contributions have been generally acknowledged by insiders – i.e., prominent persons and international organisations – they receive far less recognition than they deserve because most of their contributions occur behind the scenes. More often than not, the success of international nuclear abolition is attributed to other international actors, particularly ICAN, which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize following the adoption of the TPNW.
It is prudent to begin delving into our topic by first examining the way in which the nuclear abolition social movement's objective is framed. Framing calls attention to a single issue, underscores the importance of a collective narrative, and transforms negative events into feelings of grievance or injustice. When framing accentuates a common interpretation (i.e., a collective action frame),  it can persuade relevant stakeholders to take action. A common interpretation or narrative that legitimizes the activities of social movement organizations is known as a collective action frame. A collective action frame’s main objective is to change the framing of an issue such that the source of the problem is identified. This framework helps us understand the extent to which Japanese non-state actors have contextualised the nuclear abolition movement through a humanitarian perspective. The mobilisation of eyewitness testimonies from survivors and victims lends credence to a distinct narrative underscoring the humanitarian consequences, thereby providing justification for a ban on nuclear weapons. In identifying the source of the problem as the need to ban nuclear weapons due to their humanitarian consequences, the movement is put in the opposite position of the Japanese government, which is against TPNW.
2. From the 1950s Onward: Eyewitness Testimonies
Abolition efforts have been built on the basis of nuclear weapons’ catastrophic humanitarian consequences, attested by eyewitness testimonies. Unfortunately, the Japanese government had only protested once – a protest was sent through the Swiss government on 10 August 1945, claiming that the then-new bombs were against international laws regulating hostilities in armed conflict. After Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, the US-led occupation eventually resulted in close bilateral security relations starting in 1951, which made it impossible for Japan to support the TPNW despite calling for a world without nuclear weapons. It is against this backdrop that Japanese non-state actors have raised the issue instead, urging policymakers to take action. Since 1957, one year after Hidankyo’s formation, hibakusha have consistently warned that nuclear weapons and mankind cannot coexist, stressing their catastrophic humanitarian consequences and immorality.
Hidankyo’s credibility as the moral authority in framing the humanitarian discourse was established immediately – it remains the nationwide hibakusha umbrella group, and all its officials and members are hibakusha. Hidankyo was formed when there was overwhelming public support for hibakusha and the nationwide “ban-the-bomb movement” following a nuclear fallout incident in 1954 involving a Japanese tuna fishing boat ironically named Daigo Fukuryu-maru, which literally means, Lucky Dragon No. 5. Prior to this, hibakusha were marginalised for over a decade, particularly during the US-led occupation, during which authorities censored all relevant reports related to atomic bombs. But the Lucky Dragon Incident led to the 1955 First World Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, finally providing a platform for hibakusha to speak out, share their experiences, and call for nuclear abolition. Other hibakusha were motivated to follow suit, thus the conference was a clear indication that the newly-minted domestic anti-nuclear weapons movement had a global aim, which explains its decades-long efforts contributing to the international movement. From the beginning, hibakusha have framed their messages in terms of “severity”, “urgency”, “efficacy”, and “propriety” (the four common frames in the anti-nuclear weapons movement) to encourage action with one voice, stressing the necessity of collective change.
Fujimori Toshiki, Hidankyo’s assistant secretary-general, explains that hibakusha strive to highlight the disastrous short- and long-term impacts of nuclear weapons to raise global awareness of their humanitarian consequences. From 1957–78, 12 overseas visits were arranged by Hidankyo, most of which involved one hibakusha being sent out per visit. Since 1980, the organisation has arranged overseas trips for hibakusha annually (usually a few such trips to different events). In total, 685 hibakusha participated in 175 overseas visits arranged from 1957–2019. Fujimori, being a hibakusha himself, frequently travelled to bear testimonies against nuclear weapons. However, since early 2020, these overseas visits have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In short, Hidankyo aims to succeed by influencing international political and legal bodies. Hence, the five nuclear powers (China, France, the US, Russia and the UK) under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the UN have been targeted specifically. Hidankyo has maintained regular engagements with the UN since its first trip there in 1974. As early as 1975, it submitted a petition to the UN calling for an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons completely. At the first UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1978, 41 hibakusha from Hidankyo were among the 500-strong Japanese delegation – the biggest overseas delegation present – and submitted about 19 million signatures calling for nuclear abolition. Hidankyo has persistently submitted petitions and signatures to the UN since, and it also speaks at UN events, participates in its NGOs’ meetings, organises exhibitions, and participates in NPT Review Conferences to consistently remind states of the threat of nuclear weapons. Millions of signatures have been collected by Hidankyo over the years, demonstrating not only the moral authority of hibakusha but also their persistence in maintaining the anti-nuclear weapons sentiment among the general public.
In its efforts to influence the five nuclear powers, Hidankyo sent delegations to each of them in 1985 in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings, petitioning for nuclear abolition. To support allies, Hidankyo works closely with other organisations such as ICAN, Peace Boat, and Soka Gakkai International, often accepting requests from organisers of anti-nuclear weapons events worldwide to be either present or serve as guest speakers. Additionally, Hidankyo was involved in a series of demonstrations in several European countries in the 1980s, which gathered 100,000 people to protest US and Soviet missile deployments.
The eyewitness testimonies given by hibakusha concerning the widespread deaths, injuries, and long-term physical and psychological impacts caused by the atomic bombings have formed the basis of the humanitarian framing of nuclear weapons. Tomonaga has highlighted their extreme effects – e.g., heat rays and radiation. Eyewitness testimonies tell how scorching heat burnt practically everything and everyone, to the extent that rivers were filled with bodies because victims had jumped in to escape the heat or simply to drink. In addition to their physical injuries, hibakusha suffer lifelong sickness, risk developing illnesses as a result of radioactive exposure, and live with the bombings’ psychological impact (e.g., survivor’s guilt). The invisible scars are equally as painful as the physical ones.
Eyewitness testimonies thus form a unique trait of Japanese contributions by providing a human face to the discourse. Yanagawa Yoshiko, who survived Hiroshima at 16, testified about seeing “a living hell that went beyond description” after crawling out from the ruins of her school building. She also shared regret about simply fleeing for her life, ignoring injured people calling for help, and decided to speak publicly about her experience so that the tragedy would not be repeated. These testimonies carry a high degree of moral authority and are considered the most effective way to raise awareness about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. It would not be an over-exaggeration to say that hibakusha are the soul of the international movement, having resolutely testified for decades, thus maintaining the momentum of the anti-nuclear weapons movement.
Hibakushas’ indispensable contributions are acknowledged by experts and prominent figures in the field. Professor Kurosawa Mitsuru of Osaka Jogakuin University points out that hibakusha efforts were the precedent for the humanitarian approach against nuclear weapons, which began in the 2010s. In 2015, the then UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, commended their 70-year advocacy and challenged those who doubted the need for nuclear abolition to listen to hibakushas’ stories. Iwasaki Makoto, executive director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center, points out that hibakusha have inspired the international campaign, a viewpoint shared by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) president, Peter Maurer, who has stated that the world maintains a hope of nuclear abolition largely due to survivor contributions. Professor Hirose Satoshi, vice-director of the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA), also confirms that the most significant contributions by non-state actors leading to the TPNW are hibakushas’ testimonies. This was especially so in Hidankyo’s early phases, when most people, including the Japanese, were still largely unaware of the scale of the atomic bombings due to US censorship. Hibakusha do not call for revenge or hatred, but only a nuclear-weapons-free world, thus demonstrating a humanitarian angle and message. According to Akiba Tadatoshi, Hiroshima’s mayor from 1999–2011, calling for world peace is one of hibakushas’ three extraordinary contributions, in addition to their strong resolution to live on and their contribution to the prevention of a third use of nuclear weapons.
Among the prominent hibakusha in Japan and at the international level was Taniguchi Sumiteru from Nagasaki. Although he survived the atomic bombing at 16 and spent nearly two years in a hospital, Taniguchi suffered from radiation-related illness and pain daily until his passing at the age of 88 in August 2017. Yet, he still joined anti-nuclear weapons activities starting as early as the 1950s, when they first emerged in Japan, becoming a core Hidankyo leader. Often taking the lead in these activities, Taniguchi participated in 396 protests against nuclear weapons and testing. He gained international fame as an atomic bomb survivor in 1970, when a photograph of him, taken in September 1945 and showing his severely burnt back, was publicly released from the US archives. Sergeant Joe O’Donnell, the young US Marine who took the photograph, was affected by Taniguchi’s suffering, declaring that he “would not take other pictures of burned victims unless ordered to do so”. Taniguchi often used this photograph to directly show his audience the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. To contribute to policy and legal changes, he actively joined key international events, including the NPT Review Conferences in 2005, 2010, and 2015, speaking there to urge governments and civil society to work towards their total elimination. Taniguchi’s lifetime devotion made him a frontrunner for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. He still travelled to Malaysia to speak at the “Coalition of Younger Generation Say ‘NO TO WAR’” symposium in March 2016, despite having been admitted to the hospital for two weeks in the previous month – it was his last overseas trip before succumbing to cancer in 2017.
Watanabe Rika, the international coordinator of Peace Boat’s Hibakusha Project, attests that such personal stories are the strongest messages of the movement. The testimonies of hibakusha often touch the hearts of listeners, who readily agree because they only want to ensure that no one else will suffer similarly. Their testimonies also detail the long-term physical and mental effects, forcing listeners to consider the impact of more powerful nuclear weapons today. Such narratives have motivated individuals such as Suzuki Keina of the International Signature Campaign in Support of the Appeal of the Hibakusha for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (or Hibakusha Appeal), who stated that his life changed after meeting hibakusha, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of eyewitness testimony.
3. 1990s: Contributing to the World Court Project
The advisory opinion on the threat or use of nuclear weapons issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1996, a result of the WCP, was a significant milestone, and one in which Japanese non-state actors played a key role. The WCP was a bold plan initiated in 1992 by three international NGOs – the International Peace Bureau, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), and International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA). Specifically, the ICJ was asked whether or not the threat or the use of nuclear weapons was permitted under international law. As the WCP received crucial contributions from the Japanese anti-nuclear weapons movement (particularly JALANA and Hidankyo), it continued to receive support from international initiatives and grow tremendously through such contributions. This helped ensure the WCP’s success, which in turn resulted in the 1996 ICJ advisory opinion on the legal status of nuclear weapons.
The involvement of Japanese lawyers began in 1989 when a group attended IALANA’s assembly in The Hague. Determined to work towards nuclear abolition, they formed the Kanto Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms in August 1993, which later evolved into JALANA in August 1994, serving as IALANA’s local affiliate in supporting the WCP. Sasaki Takeya, its president, explains that the founding assembly in Hiroshima was attended by 20 lawyers and scholars, including himself as moderator. JALANA grew to include 300 lawyers as members.
Since the ICJ only accepts cases or requests from governments or certain UN bodies, WCP campaigners first tried to convince the World Health Organization (WHO) and like-minded governments to ask for an advisory opinion. These actors strongly supported their campaign, so two requests were submitted to the ICJ: (1) a 1993 WHO resolution inquiring whether the use of nuclear weapons violated international law in general, and the WHO constitution specifically, in terms of such weapons’ impact on health and the environment; and (2) a 1994 UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution asking if “the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance [is] permitted under international law”.
In parallel, supporters of the WCP worldwide, including Japanese organisations, launched extensive public campaigns and attained remarkable achievements, including collecting millions of signed Declarations of Public Conscience, 11,000 signatures from legal fraternities, documents proving 50 years’ worth of “citizens’ opposition to nuclear weapons”, and endorsements by more than 700 citizen groups – all even before the 1995 oral hearings began. Sasaki highlights how the newly formed JALANA swung into action immediately, working closely with hibakusha and other members of civil society to collect signatures for the Declarations of Public Conscience. These declarations were based on the Martens Clause from the preamble of the 1899 Hague Convention (II) and the 1907 Hague Convention, which states how “the dictates of the public conscience” are required for situations not covered by existing rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). JALANA and its partner organisations collected and shipped over three million signatures from Japan that formed the majority of the four million signatures collected worldwide, thus illustrating strong domestic support and the enormous efforts put into the signature drives in Japan. Furthermore, JALANA sent related books and audiovisual material, including photographs and videos, to the ICJ library and judges to highlight the disastrous humanitarian consequences. Such concrete evidence evoked public conscience regarding the weapons’ inhumanity and illegality.
Crucially, JALANA worked with IALANA to find ways for the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to testify at the ICJ, which could only accept statements from governments or international organisations. But the US-aligned Japanese government was obviously not willing to submit statements from the two mayors. Hence, in 1995, JALANA and IALANA found a willing partner in Nauru, which was ready to apply the testimony of Hiroshima’s mayor to the ICJ. A lawyer representing Nauru’s government contacted Sasaki, who was heavily involved in the WCP and believed that the mayor of Hiroshima would go to the ICJ if Nauru applied for a testimony. In a strategic move, JALANA informed the Japanese government of Nauru’s plan. In mid-September, an appointment between JALANA and the Japanese foreign ministry was cancelled that very day by the ministry, which applied for testimonies from the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the ICJ instead. Nauru’s intentions likely left the Japanese government with no other choice – Japan would have been in an even more awkward position internationally if the Hiroshima mayor were to testify due to Nauru’s intervention.
The Japanese government appeared to have (superficially) changed its stance by allowing the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to testify due to strong domestic public pressure. It even unsuccessfully pressured both mayors in a desperate move to make them speak in line with the government’s stance. But the mayors were determined to speak out for the people and were clear about their goals of abolishing nuclear weapons. At the oral hearings, the mayors made powerful statements and presented photographs showing the consequences of the atomic bombings. Also present were more than 50 hibakusha supporting the WCP. While most people may not know what went on behind the scenes, JALANA was delighted that it had contributed to and made possible the strong testimonies of the two mayors at the ICJ.
JALANA’s hard work, and that of other organisations worldwide, resulted in overwhelming global backing for the WCP, seen in the huge number of documents sent to the ICJ. On 8 July 1996, the ICJ ruled on both requests – it was unable to give an advisory opinion to the WHO request because the question involved the use of force and (dis)armament, i.e., it was beyond the WHO’s public health scope. However, with the second request, the ICJ concluded that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law”, but was unable to decide if their threat or use was lawful or otherwise when a country’s existence was threatened. Nonetheless, its decisions were an unprecedented achievement for all actors working towards the WCP, including Japanese non-state actors.
It was a historic success in that the ICJ accepted statements and evidence from non-state actors including individuals, hibakusha, and victims of nuclear tests. It was also the only time thus far that the ICJ deliberated on the legal status of nuclear weapons. While the Japanese movement contributed significantly to the WCP, this movement also grew tremendously in strength through its involvement in the WCP. Thus, strong grounds were established for the anti-nuclear weapons movement and for like-minded governments to pursue a ban treaty.
4. 2010s: Strengthening the Humanitarian Initiative
The decades-long lack of progress on disarmament resulted in renewed efforts from anti-nuclear weapons activists and state governments in the 2010s to divert the discourse from traditional security to the humanitarian consequences instead. Later known as the “Humanitarian Initiative”, the goal was to achieve a ban treaty from a humanitarian perspective, with or without the participation of nuclear powers, by building upon the solid ground established by hibakusha over previous decades. Particularly, this reframing of nuclear weapons was inspired by successful campaigns banning landmines in 1997 and cluster munitions in 2008 that focused on the humanitarian consequences of the weapons with the aim of de-legitimising them. The momentum was further encouraged by positive developments in 2009, particularly Barack Obama’s 5 April speech in Prague that called for a nuclear-weapons-free world. In September 2009, the UN Security Council Summit endorsed a resolution on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation for the first time. In April 2010, the ICRC strongly urged governments to focus on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and their legality under IHL, questioning their compatibility with the rules of war and amplifying the humanitarian reframing. The world’s only three-time Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the ICRC, provided a powerful moral voice owing to its first-hand experience together with the Japanese Red Cross (JRC) in providing relief to victims of the atomic bombings. Furthermore, it is effectively the “guardian” of IHL, which limits suffering in armed conflict due to its unique mandate stemming from the Geneva Conventions. The ICRC’s strong stance also represented that of the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent (RCRC) movement worldwide. Oyama Hiroto, deputy director of the Office of the President of the JRC, confirms that the RCRC was subsequently approached and consulted by more states and civil society groups on the issue. After all, not only did the movement play a significant role in promoting IHL, but JRC hospitals have been treating hibakusha since 1945. In parallel, the ICAN mounted intensive public campaigns against nuclear weapons by working closely with hibakusha and survivors of nuclear weapons tests to provide powerful eyewitness testimonies. Several prominent organisations in the Japanese movement were also part of the ICAN network, including Mayors for Peace (ICAN’s first international partner in 2006, one year before its official launch). Another Japanese organisation, Peace Boat, is a part of ICAN’s International Steering Group and coordinates ICAN’s campaigns in Japan.
The humanitarian reframing of nuclear weapons stemmed from non-state actors and influenced like-minded state governments, many of which were already supportive of earlier campaigns against landmines and cluster munitions. When international momentum pushed for the organisation of three conferences in 2013–14 (in Oslo, Norway; Nayarit, Mexico; and Vienna, Austria, respectively) focusing on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, hibakusha played a crucial role in the discourse. Hidankyo prominently participated in all three of the conferences by sending hibakusha to testify. Victims of nuclear tests also spoke to strengthen the argument. The voices of survivors, shut out from security-based nuclear discourse, were instead at the centre of the humanitarian discourse. Ultimately, the three conferences gave legitimacy to hibakusha and victims of nuclear tests for their unilateral message of banning nuclear weapons due to the humanitarian consequences.
At the Oslo conference, Tomonaga Masao shared Nagasaki University’s research done in 1995 on the psychological states of hibakusha – they still suffered post-traumatic stress disorder even after 50 years, in addition to the negative impacts on their physical health, financial situations, and social relations. Tanaka Terumi, Hidankyo’s secretary-general, shared his personal experiences in the hope that the world could understand the catastrophic consequences. In a media interview upon returning home, Tanaka asserted that these conferences were moving in the right direction by focusing on the weapons’ inhumanity. Meanwhile, JALANA, which had been working closely with hibakusha for decades, submitted its recommendations to the Oslo Conference to confirm the inhumanity of nuclear weapons. The Nayarit conference strengthened the humanitarian perspective by allocating one whole session to testimonies of hibakusha, including that of a teenage girl who was affected by third-generation consequences. At the Vienna conference, an 82-year-old Hiroshima hibakusha based in Canada, Setsuko Thurlow, made a moving speech urging the world to start negotiating a ban treaty. After surviving the bombing at 13 while most of her classmates perished, Thurlow has been speaking globally on the issue for decades.
As rightly summarised by the chair of the Nayarit conference, the Humanitarian Initiative was at “a point of no return”, having received pledges from like-minded governments to proceed towards an international treaty. The first conference had involved 127 states, which increased to 146 and 158 states at the next two conferences respectively, clearly indicating increased support from states for such “reframing”. Collectively, these conferences led to an unstoppable momentum. The contributions of hibakusha were affirmed by the ICRC when its president, Peter Maurer, stated in 2015 that hibakushas’ testimonies pointed to all aspects of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which was the focus of these conferences. Significantly, Peter Buijs, chair of the Netherlands’ IPPNW, described the Humanitarian Initiative as an “ICRC-inspired Human Impact of Nuclear Weapon’s Approach, linked to hibakusha-experiences”. Likewise, the ICAN also acknowledged that it was humanitarian framing that led to the TPNW.
5. Towards a Nuclear Ban Treaty
Despite opposition against the humanitarian reframing from nuclear powers and countries under the US nuclear umbrella, the Humanitarian Initiative led to an unprecedented diplomatic process aiming to negotiate a nuclear ban treaty. It was then that Hidankyo spoke during the general debate on disarmament efforts of the First Committee of the UNGA in October 2016. Its deputy secretary-general, Fujimori Toshiki, handed over 564,240 signatures to the chair, Ambassador Sabri Boukadoum, all collected through the aforementioned Hibakusha Appeal, the signature campaign calling for a treaty to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the Peace Boat strategically timed its voyage to reach New York in October 2016 to help build momentum ahead of a UNGA meeting that was expected to vote on whether nuclear weapons should be banned. A series of activities were arranged for hibakusha arriving aboard the Peace Boat. Morikawa Takaaki from Hiroshima spoke on a panel discussion at the UN while Fukahori Joji from Nagasaki talked about his experiences with students at the UN International School. Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of President Harry S. Truman, the US president who had ordered the use of atomic bombings, attended the events in New York as one of the supporters of hibakusha and the nuclear ban treaty.
The ambivalent Japanese government finally made its stance clear on 27 October 2016, voting against a UNGA resolution to begin negotiations for the ban treaty in that coming March. Japan voted similarly when the UNGA passed a resolution in December 2016 to organise a multilateral conference from 27–31 March 2017, and from 15 June–7 July to negotiate a ban treaty. On 27 March, Japan appeared to clarify its position that it could not participate in the negotiations on the grounds that the absence of participation by nuclear-weapon-wielding states was unlikely to lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Japan, the nuclear powers, and their allies claimed that the TPNW risked weakening the NPT. Their “defensive engagement” manifested the moral authority of the non-state actors and like-minded state actors in the humanitarian reframing. Despite the Japanese government’s boycott, Kawasaki Akira, an ICAN International Steering Group member and Peace Boat executive committee member, pointed out that hibakusha continued to work hard to ensure the success of the conferences (from March until July 2017), thus contributing tremendously to the TPNW’s adoption. It is noteworthy that the conferences were open to participation by international organisations and civil society, thus signifying the centrality of non-state actors in the nuclear abolition discourse.
On 7 July 2017, the last day of the second round of negotiations, the TPNW was adopted by 122 states. The treaty was opened for signatures on 20 September 2017, and entered into force on 22 January 2021, 90 days after the 50th ratification. It is the first multilateral treaty which comprehensively bans nuclear weapons, including their development, testing, production, manufacturing, possession, stockpiling, transfer and use or threat of use. Thus, the Humanitarian Initiative has succeeded on the first step towards nuclear abolition by officially declaring these weapons illegal. Together, it has successfully shifted the narrative of the discourse away from security, emphasising humanitarian reasons instead. Of exceptional significance was the collaboration between hibakusha and the international movement. For Japanese advocates, the TPNW has had tremendous significance on their work. The treaty’s adoption and the awarding of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN, which also dedicated the prize to hibakusha and victims of nuclear tests, was an emotional moment for Japanese advocates for nuclear abolition, which has enhanced domestic momentum.
The Hibakusha Appeal collected 13.7 million signatures worldwide between April 2016 and December 2020, including 1,497 signatures from present and former heads of Japanese local governments. These achievements impressed the International Peace Bureau into awarding the 2020 Sean MacBride Peace Prize to Hidankyo’s Tanaka, the campaign’s initiator. Despite its government’s negative stance, Hidankyo remains committed to its struggle and constantly looks for opportunities to pressure the government. When the TPNW entered into force, Hidankyo launched a nationwide signature campaign to pressure the government into joining the treaty. Note that for its decades-long advocacy, Hidankyo has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times since 1985.
Magnus Lovold, the ICRC arms policy adviser, asserts that it is hard to imagine the creation of TPNW without persistent hibakusha efforts stressing the weapons’ devastating impacts. Kawasaki underscores such efforts, which, together with those of nuclear test victims, have created a global hibakusha movement emphasising the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The TPNW’s preamble has recognised hibakusha for promoting the principles of humanity in their calls for nuclear abolition. But beyond that, hibakushas’ tremendous contributions are unfortunately not necessarily recognised by the general public.
Japanese anti-nuclear weapons actors have collectively played an indispensable, though largely invisible role in calling for a world without nuclear weapons, demonstrating the humanitarian consequences of these weapons. The 2010s Humanitarian Initiative diverted the discourse away from security and towards humanitarian consequences, a core message that has been iterated by hibakusha from the beginning. The sending of hibakusha abroad by Hidankyo since the 1950s has established a credible international humanitarian framing to push for a nuclear ban treaty. Similarly, JALANA’s contributions to the ICJ advisory opinion on nuclear weapons are little known to the general public. Their persistent efforts have inspired and helped maintain international momentum, ensuring that the atomic bombings are not just stagnant historical events but active discussion topics. No anti-nuclear weapons discourse can possibly be held without discussing Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or hibakusha, even while being overshadowed by the Japanese government’s opposition to the TPNW, and while international players are often credited for such abolition efforts. This paper demonstrates that the Japanese anti-nuclear weapons movement is an under-recognised pillar of strength and a source of inspiration for the international anti-nuclear weapons movement.
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